Joining me today are two of the Co-Founders behind Branch Basics, Allison Evans and Kelly Love.
Branch Basics are non-toxic cleaning products that were created with the most sensitive in mind. They clean powerfully using only the highest quality, plant-based ingredients.
In this episode we’re talking about the importance of having a true purpose and mission to drive you forward in business, what happened when they went through a really tough time in their business and had to close down, and the key learnings for anyone who might be considering going down the path of white labelling a product.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Sure I'll take it first. Um My name is Allison Evans and I'm sitting here in Texas part of the United States. I feel like I just say that you're such an international dune. Um And we co own a company called Branch Basics. Yeah, so I'm Kelly Love. Allison and I are best friends from college.
00:03:25 We met at University of texas in Austin. Actually found it. Branch basics with her aunt merrily as well, but I currently live in Jackson Mississippi where my husband is from, so we are all over the place and Merrilees in texas as well, all over the place. Seems like that's totally the norm these days though, with everything going on with the pandemic, I want to go back to life before you started branch basics to find out what was happening in your lives that we're leading you down the path of entrepreneurship and why you were starting this business in the first place. Yeah, well first I realized we didn't even answer the question about what is branch basics or what we do. So for your listeners, we sell non toxic cleaning products, but we really view ourselves as a lifestyle wellness brand, built on education, we are very passionate about all things healthy living and love to educate, you know, not just on cleaning related stuff, so but we actually sell a nontoxic concentrate that can be diluted with water and replaced dozens of cleaning products.
00:04:27 Amazing, amazing, so good. I'm sure all the people in America know about this, I wish it was in the UK, it looks like a game changer for the house one day, one day, yes, we would love internationally, got to figure that out, but I'll roll into answering the second, that was good call. So yeah, we never set out to be entrepreneurs, we had absolutely no business background, this is literally a passion project turned like, you know, we're honestly, there was a day where kelly and I were like, you think this could really make money? Like I hadn't really thought about that. I mean we were so Naive, we were like 22 years old and just out of college, no business background, but we had experienced what we have kind of coins are, you know, internally as the power of pure um and that was when we went to go live with merrily in the texas hill country and her home was completely free of all toxic chemicals and we both kind of have our stories of how that revolutionized our health.
00:05:34 Um for me, I had been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, tons of cysts all over my ovaries and then that was in high school and then fast forward to college or university. I came down with mysterious pain from basically head to toe that was debilitating and left me on a slew of drugs and painkillers and muscle relaxers, antidepressants. And then my aunt barely came along and told me about how toxins can actually impede our bodies from naturally healing, which is what they are inclined to do. And so I had nothing to lose and I was feeling so hopeless. So I ditched my toxins, wow, but she started asking questions like what are you eating every day, what laundry products are using, what cleaning products are using and personal care products, these things that Alison Nora is her roommate like had ever thought about in relation to our health. Yeah, we're like, we've done these things our whole lives, everybody uses Clorox and videos, high V. O. C. Paints and uses splenda, you know, back when splenda 100 calorie packs are like the thing to stay skinny, so it was just like a mind blowing kind of time.
00:06:38 And um anyway, I went to go live with merrily and just that those two months living with her completely revolutionized my health. I was able to reverse polycystic ovarian syndrome, be able to get pregnant naturally, which I was told would never happen. I was completely out of pain and it was all because of the way that we started eating and cleaning out our environment and then kelly, you can share just how that transformed you. Yeah, so I was the healthy one but just really intrigued by all this. I was a health promotion major in college and I thought I wanted to start a Pilates studio after college and when love with merrily just to learn more about how to cook healthy food and just health in general and I all of a sudden didn't have painful menstrual cramps anymore and dry itchy eyes and I had been going to acupuncture and getting massages for like muscle aches and all that muscle explain away. So things like that made me realize, okay, these things that we all just think are normal because they're so common, don't really have to be normal, it's just because we're all exposed to this stuff every day and if we get that out of our lives, then these things just disappeared, wow, that's Alison and I were like merrily, you know, so much, she knows so much because of healing her son, he was told he would never recover after being exposed to high levels of now banned pesticides that just completely wrecked his immune system, detoxification abilities, brain everything that the doctor said he would never recover and essentially be a bubble boy for the rest of his life.
00:08:07 And she just refused to believe that and believed that there had to be away and knew a lot about food as medicine already, but really through the journey of his recovery, discovered how much the chemicals and the everyday products have on our lives. And so she was just a wealth of knowledge and we were like, we've got to get your brain on the internet, like we got to start a company somehow and get like everything that we've learned this summer, like we want all of our friends and family to know basically people wouldn't one day say like why didn't somebody tell me this? Like that was the whole goal of starting the company so that we could get this information out. You may think it's crazy, but like it's off our backs, we told, you know, I've been a much more loving manner than that but it was really started out of a passion to educate people on removing toxins from the home, not just the buying a cleaning, non toxic green cleaning product in the store, bringing in your home and thinking that it's all healthy, sitting next to your Windex creating this chemical soup in your home's air. So we just started really understanding the importance of removing all toxic chemicals and yeah never set out to sell.
00:09:13 So we started focusing on just the soap and people have loved it and that's been the biggest blessing of it all is that we happen to sell soap that kicks ass now so that just like perfectly supports this you know the mission and our message. And so how did you actually go about starting the business? Was it? You know your aunt was having her own kind of mixes of chemical free cleaners in the house and you guys based a formulation of that or what was the process to actually coming up with a product? Yeah, so we actually started off as a retail store selling a variety of different products. So it was originally called three branches healthy living and the whole concept was just to sell like the top vetted product in each category that merrily had approved. So the best air purifier, the best infrared sauna, the best water filter system supplements, cleaning products, you name it and this was in 2000 and nine and it just was really overwhelming for people. This was like not as popular or mainstream as it is today.
00:10:19 And people are like where do I start? And so we kept finding that cleaning with such an easy first step for people and they made such a big impact in the air quality. And and a lot of times people can notice such a change so quickly because they might normally get you know running eyes or sneeze or cough a lot or get headaches when they're cleaning. And so anyway, we at first just kept the cleaning product as part of all the other products and we were originally selling it under a different brand, the manufacturer's brand and they happened to offer private labeling. And so we kind of really just eased our way into like Allison said we had no business experience. We did not start off originally trying to formulate something on our own. Merrily had a long history with this product with her son and other chemically sensitive clients that she had consulted. And so we just set out to like start an agreement with her like to private label that And then it turns out that started picking up and we decided to focus on just the cleaning product and drop all the other products since we could really build our own brand and not just be a retailer but fast forward a few years.
00:11:30 And we were picking up, we started, you know, had some bloggers write about us. We had a big Dallas morning news newspaper segment clip or whatever and we decided, okay, this is really like getting some traction. Let's not just private label and be one of many private labelers of this formula. Let's get an exclusive licensing agreement. And so we brought in legal help and worked out a contract, got an exclusive licensing agreement, did a friends and family million dollar fundraising round and we rebranded, we were cranking we're rocking and rolling and then it just kind of all came crashing down because we realized that the formula that we were private labeling from had not been honest, even in the legal contracts. And so we had different I guess opinions on what like natural meant, you know, since that's not really a regulated word. We were promoting this the way that she had told us which was non synthetic, you know, no synthetics of anyway, without getting into the details.
00:12:32 It became clear that we needed to formulate on our own and be able to have a formula that we could be fully transparent with because that formula was proprietary to her. And so we went through a huge learning curve and decided a disaster. It was exactly where we shut down everything I can hardly like as kelly tells it. I feel this like physical reaction in my body or I'm like it's, it's when you tell something that was so bad. It's amazing how good it can sound like you're like, oh those for some lessons learned. You know, we're like we how it was. How did you like how did it come to your attention that it wasn't what you thought it was? Yeah. I mean basically the more we grew, the more people started questioning the product and eventually we just kept pressing and pressing and not getting clear answers and it kind of just all unfolded, right? So she hadn't really shared the recipe with you guys right?
00:13:37 There was a proprietary blend that we knew was plant based and honestly it was our naive because it was the same formula that had been used with Merrilees. Most sensitive clients. Year after year clients that could never use anything at whole foods, you know, So we being so young we were trusting, well we knew it was non toxic. We did have tested to verify, not toxic and safe, you know, No in toxicology testing. But yes, it was a very big lesson learned of um you know to really be able to stand by and grow and set a strong foundation to be able to successfully grow and scale the company. You I mean you really need to know what you're working with what you're offering to the public. So at the same time it was such a blessing for us because I don't think the three of us would have said, oh let's go work with a chemist and try and make a cleaning product, you know, so it really, it really ended up being what allowed us to get started and it's just, it was, yeah, it was a tough lesson.
00:14:43 Sounds like a really tough lesson. And obviously there was such an evolution there when you had to, you know, when you were going through all this, did you say at some point you had to fully shut the business down and and stop everything? Yes. In 2015, we decided to discontinue selling the product and let our customers know that and we tried to refund as much as possible, but we were not in a position financially to be able to refund everyone that wanted a refund. And yeah, we had to let our employees go. We had about 10 employees and it was really called all of our investors, you know who our family and friends, It was a really difficult time. I mean, I remember one night Alison merrily and I are just all in the computer day and night trying to talk to customers and investors and just handle everything. And I fainted like I literally fainted like myself as a guy and I and merrily, I mean just was like a walking zombie.
00:15:49Edit Yeah, it was not pretty, it was a rough time. That story. It's good to be told and good to be heard because you know, there's rarely a business that is doing well and growing, that hasn't been through something pretty tumultuous, I mean maybe ours is a little more dramatic. We we joked that we didn't go to business school, but we sure as heck have paid a business called many times through life's lessons in this growing, this company. So, so for you guys, obviously the key learning here would be that, you know, if you're growing a business and scaling it, you need to have your own formulations and you need to be aware of what you're truly selling to your customer. But what were some of the other learnings that you got out of that process and that time? Yeah, I would say that, yeah, you know, transparency and as my husband said, he was getting his MBA, as we were going through this, it's an entrepreneur school in Austin and they teach that the main reason businesses fail is because of a people problem, whether it's vendors, whether it's an employee, whether it's a partner and he was like, you are literally showing me this is true because merely kelly and I have never had any issues, like thankfully thank God, we have gone through heck together and we have stayed strong, but we've made some bad hiring choices, we've made some bad trust vendor choices and yeah, so that was a big thing, people person and just really vetting people that you work with no matter where they are on the chain, but then also, I think the fact that we now are lucrative and growing and we never thought, I didn't think this would happen.
00:17:23 I didn't think we could come back from it yet. We never lowered our standards. I mean, so many different formulae. Tres chemists would say, well you just want a unicorn, like what y'all want, y'all standards are too high. We have to use this sort of preservative, you know, that just doesn't work. You know, that's why the industry doesn't have anything like you're talking about, you know, and merrily really taught us like, just don't take no, I mean, just keep pressing forward, like don't be dumb, you know, But at the same time, like remain hopeful and keep trying out new avenues, even if it takes, it took us 18 months, like we thought we're gonna lose everybody by the time we come back and they were up to me, I probably would have cut some corners, but she was like, nope, no corners cut, I mean, and she's the wise older, you know, one of the uh, well, and she was basically, you know, we based our formulation off of the chemically sensitive, you know, kind of the Canary in the coal mine principle of if it's safe enough for them, then it's safe enough for everyone. But yeah, to your original question, that's when we started actually working with formulate er, so we do not have like a chemistry background ourselves, but we knew what we wanted in terms of efficacy because obviously, you know, it's gotta work like it can be safe all day long, but if it doesn't work then people are going to continue using it.
00:18:36 So we had high standards and knew exactly what we wanted in terms of, you know, it's got to work in this way this way, not leave a residue, you know, not irritate the eyes, not irritate the skin. So we made very clear like brief I guess, you know, for the chemists and we worked with several different chemists at one time instead of putting all of our eggs in one basket and tested literally over 100 formulations. And I mean I had my towels out, you know the $1 towels for my k. I just got a ton and I literally put like mustard chlor ella, you know, tomato sauce, olive oil, you name it like 10 different stains and tested all the other, you know, cleaning products on the market with each sample that we had gotten. And then I would go in my shower and close the door and and spray it and see if it made me sneeze and cough. I'd literally hold my eyes open and spray it in my face and see if it burns high. So we did a lot of like just, I don't know some crazy stuff there.
00:19:40 That's so cool though. I love that. At this point. I'm wondering how your financing all this. Obviously you've had a friends and family around at this point. You've got investors, you are also refunding all of your customers and your now having to pay for a new formulation which obviously wasn't in the original plan. I'm guessing you know, more than 100 formulation sounds like a lot. And then obviously placing an order, all that kind of thing. How are you, how are you financing it? Well, the beautiful thing about all the formulations and working with the chemists, they were all willing to work with us contingent on getting the manufacturing contract out of it. So they all formulated and send us the samples without charging us. So once we got to a formula that we had confidence in, we put a little bit of money to like up front just to get a bulk sample so we could send it out to friends and family and get feedback on it. But so this time Alison and I were both pregnant and when we finally decided on a formula, we were both like getting close to our due dates were our first girls over a month apart.
00:20:46 And so we knew that we were going to have to have help to relaunch the company successfully that merrily Allison and I couldn't do it alone and we ended up talking to several people and friends and networks and partnering with these two men that are now are you know the five of us are partners and they helped run the operations and finance and day to day and the five of us joined forces and committed to each putting up a little bit of money to get like a first P. O. N. And we just did it very bare bones and like boot shop. So we had originally kept our original website that we had built once when we had that original funding and we had like our instagram channel and everything we had kept even though it was about two years and in that in the down time, Alison and I would post every now and then to our instagram or like write a blog post and like give some updates to our customers. So we weren't like completely m I a are silent but at that time we then started just using our website again to let people know we were coming back and then did a pre order, wow, that's incredible.
00:22:02 How many customers did you have from like the first time around that you were able to re tap back into. Oh man. I know, I'm what was I want to say? We had like an email list of like 20,000. Yeah. Right so you had a really good starting base to to re tap into and people who are obviously still wanting you to come out and deliver this new formulation because they loved what you were doing the first time around. Yeah, I remember our social media, I mean instagram is so much bigger than it was then, but back then we had 8000 and it was, you know, it was a good number. So yes, we were definitely not like relaunching from square one, you know, totally, I love to get into the marketing to find out, you know, what you were doing in those kind of early days, even if we go back to, you know, one point oh version there, what were you doing to actually get people to know about your brand and how has that evolved over time? You know, I think that as our ceo puts it, the more we talk about our product, the less we sell and the more we talk about health in general and give tips and share our passion, the more product we sell.
00:23:16 So honestly, again, like, it really is just like there's a higher power because we knew so little going into it and I really, I think that the model um for us has just been, it's proven that the passion, if you're led by that passion, like things will follow our passion is the, the only reason that we had the desire to even come back from that mess that we were in. I mean, we wouldn't have put in the time for like something else that even if we knew it could make our money back, like I didn't have the energy to go through like that heartache again and just, you know, giving all that up. And so I think it really comes down to us, just our desire to share information and what we know has been helpful for us and so many of hundreds and hundreds of Merrilees clients and even our old customers. So I don't know if that's answering your question the right way, basically content, our own content and then also working with others to um you know, other bloggers and influencers.
00:24:17 That's really been the approach all along. And in the early days, blogging was just kind of taking off. And so we got our product to a few big bloggers in the health space because we had gone to some events like trade shows and health conferences and got a booth. And so we met some people at those conferences and then met some other vendors as well. And just through that network and through those original blog, it's that really got customers for us. And then let's see, we did not do like a lot of traditional advertising like in magazines and things like that. It really was just kind of more kind of like the word of mouth approach but through influential people like bloggers and then eventually instagram and facebook. That's amazing why are we? And so today if you look at your marketing and what kind of drives sales and what acquires new customers. Is it still that approach of you put out content that is educational and informing people about healthier ways of living or non toxic ways of living in the home and then that is still what it's the biggest driver.
00:25:24 Yes. And we also send out a lot of free products. So we, that is like we put a lot of marketing dollars into just sending free product people because our product speaks for itself and thankfully we have a very high repeat customer rate and we have a very high customer referral rate and so like, both above industry standard. And so We yeah, have just put money into, like, reaching out to people 1-1, like directly and sending them products and then also the ones, so anyone that markets French basics for us, like we want them to actually love it. Like we wanted to be a genuine push and we want them to use it before they share with others. And so we really let them tailor their message. You know, we don't tell people what to say and, you know, make sure you cover this and that, like, we trust that they know their audiences and their friends and let them tell about their own experience with the product and with our educational content as well. We have so many people that say like, oh, I just love getting y'all's emails because I actually read every article, you know, oh, that's amazing, wow, I will say to just prioritizing customer service and I know so many companies say this, but gosh, even just me reaching out to certain companies recently, I'm like, get back to me guys like, I'm like, you have no excuse.
00:26:46 You know, I mean we are especially when you're paying high dollar for something, it is like top priority for us. Like we will push aside other hires. Like we answer all questions and I'm telling you doing like most of them are not about cleaning products, It is like we have a leak under our cabinet. Who who should I call? What kind of grouchy I use for this. We have the fires are coming. Where's the air? Air purifier will help people order air purifiers, like we have literally become sometimes borderline like health practitioners and we've had to like draw lines, like we can't get recommendations on that, but we really pride ourselves in helping people just create a healthy space and remove obstacles from their lives. And I think in turn, people then want to say, oh my gosh, you have to at least follow branch basics or you know, or they want to support even us as a smaller company and they want to gift our product as gifts for the holidays. So it all comes back, even though it's not directly as talking about our product. I truly think the reason that we've been able to grow and capture our audience more is because we don't focus on our product.
00:27:46 Yeah. Yeah, that's so interesting. Yeah. And to your point about customer service, I mean it is so important to take care of your customers and it will, you know, just in the long run it will pay back for itself, you know, where is the business today and what does the future look like? So today we are just direct consumer online only through our own channel and our two main products really are liquid concentrate and our powdered oxygen boost. And then the concentrate is what's mixed in all the other bottles with water. And so we love having that direct line of communication with our customers because you know, one like we both said, we love to educate about other things, not just cleaning product, but also our product needs some education, an explanation around how to use it, since it's one thing that literally you can use to like clean your baby, but also your toilets and your laundry and all the things and so it's you can't really get that across when someone just walking by a bottle and sees it on a store shelf, but eventually we do want to go into retail, but our philosophy is kind of like build our brand awareness as much as possible and go into retail with that brand awareness and just knock it out of the park and so it is, you know, in the future, but we're all trying to start on new products, but we at the same time don't want to just have a bunch of skews because really, like I said, our concentrate takes care of so many products, we don't want to just like have a bunch of different cleaning products because it doesn't make sense for our model, but things like dishwasher, detergent or wipes, those are in the in the works.
00:29:29 Amazing. So exciting. My next question is for both of you, what advice do you have for women who have a big idea and want to start their own business? I think you okay, so for us it has been such a blessing to have each other. Um if you can do it with someone that you really love and trust, um we actually think that that's been operative word is trust because you can love a lot of people and then you go into business with its been that's been so amazing because really that's exactly what I was gonna say, it's like I could not have done this alone. Yeah, I was gonna say, I don't know if we would have gotten through everything we've gone through if I was alone. Yeah, and not to say we're just huge company and so this may not apply to us, Hopefully we will be one day, but it's like the phrase, it's lonely at the top, like I think is really true and I think the bigger you get doing something alone like that and I meanwhile it's so exciting, it can be a huge, you know bombshell lucratively too own the majority of your company.
00:30:36 Like there's no, there's nothing I would trade too, you know, we have done this alone. So I think finding someone to do it with you to share that passion, to share the exciting successes and to share in the hard times. Yeah. And I was going to say to just passion obviously is so key like having a mission beyond just the product, having like a bigger mission that really drives you when things do get hard and then just getting started. Like I tend to be a perfectionist and want to have everything in place before actually just like getting started and testing things out and I think a lot of times that can hold you back from growth because you know really just get started and get the feedback along the way and learn as you go instead of feeling like you have to have it all figured out before you start. Yeah, 100%. I totally agree with that. Yeah. And then something I was gonna say earlier, I mean in the beginning Alison and I were doing everything like wearing so many hats um Merrily was still consulting and so she was contributing to a lot of that content.
00:31:47 But Alison and I were literally like making all the purchase orders, trying to figure out how to do like even set up a business legally and do taxes and fulfilling all the orders like handwriting, you know, all the and then making all the labels and packaging everything and then it got to the point where we were like okay we can, we're, it wasn't a ton of orders but it was enough to where it was taking up all of our time and we were like okay, we're really gonna grow this. Like we've got to start outsourcing some help because we were not able to even market or do anything else and grow our company because we're just trying to like stay afloat and get the orders out. So I think you have to really be mindful of like when to bootstrap and do it all yourself but then also when to grow so that you can, you know, take that leap of faith and know that it's gonna help you grow your business when honestly partnering with people that don't necessarily think like you and have different personalities like kelly and I complement each other so well she is definitely more of like wanting to like push us forward in certain new ways and try new things.
00:32:56 Like I am one, it's like I kinda get stuck in the micro, you know, she's more macro minded and so um yeah, just having that checks and balances in order to even push into new realms. Love that, Love that for you guys, we are up to the six quick questions part of the episode so I'm gonna run through them with both of you. I'll run through Alison, I'll go first with you and I'll run through the six and then kelly will go through with you ready to go. I'm ready. Great question number one is what's your y my why is just my family, my kids like that's how I stick to health, you know things every day that I do for my body. Yeah. My family. Question #2 is what do you think has been the biggest marketing moment that's made your business pop The # one Marketing Moment. Mar